Historic drought conditions again will bring the threat of extreme wildfires to U.S. cannabis growers, especially those in Western states.
Wildfires and the ash and smoke created by them are becoming a bigger threat to life and property as average temperatures rise and water resources dwindle amid climate change.
Western states experienced historic destruction in the summer of 2020, when everything seemed to be on fire, including cannabis farms in California and Oregon.
Smoke and ash also blocked out essential sunlight and delayed the growth of outdoor marijuana plants by weeks, leaving growers with less-than-ideal options for when to harvest their plants.
Last season’s 58,950 wildfires burned 10.1 million acres across the United States, double the acreage burned in 2019 and almost 2.3 million more acres than the 10-year-average.
But that is not uncommon.
In four of the past 10 years – 2020, 2017, 2015 and 2012 – wildfires have burned 9 million or more acres in the U.S.
Three of Colorado’s largest recorded wildland fires – Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch – occurred in 2020, tearing through more than half a million acres combined.
California had its worst wildfire season on record, with an estimated 4.3 million acres burned, 33 fatalities and 10,488 structures damaged or destroyed.
And the conditions that feed large wildfires already are worse this year.
Reservoirs across much of the West are sitting at below average levels, and snowpack runoff is not expected to provide much relief.
Southwestern states, including Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, recorded their driest April-March period in 126 years.
The situation is similar in California and Colorado.
In fact, the amount of water in the snowpack has dropped to below normal for much of the West, excluding parts of Alaska and Washington state.
Drought conditions, a key indicator for predicting wildfire seasons, escalated this month compared to the same time last year.
The U.S. Drought Monitor’s latest outlook, released last week, shows that much of the area where cannabis is grown in the West and Southwest is experiencing extreme and exceptional drought conditions, which can lead to water emergencies and widespread crop and pasture losses.
Add unseasonably high temperatures, lightning strikes from summer storms and a population eager to get out after almost a year of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, and the situation could turn critical.
The wildfire season continues to push earlier into the year and last longer once here.
A recent analysis by The Washington Post looked at 60 years of climate data showing that California’s wildfire season is getting longer because of a shrinking wet season in the state.
Winter rains also are arriving later in the season, often not in time to quench the tinder-dry vegetation that feeds large fires.
The troubling trend should give cannabis cultivators a strong motivation to include a defensive wildfire strategy as part of their operational plans.
While nothing is 100% effective, cultivators can increase their chances of surviving wildfire damage by cutting firelines around their property and coordinating with local firefighting organizations.
Cannabis cultivators should also look toward protecting their employees and crops from the effects of smoke and ash.
Last year’s wildfires pushed large amounts of smoke and ash into areas that were not immediately at threat from the fire, causing hazardous conditions for employees and crops.
Willow Creek, California, a small mountain town in Humboldt County, reported sustained air-quality readings that reached almost three times the level considered hazardous.
From September to October last year, the town recorded 24-hour average air-quality measures ranging from 50 to 650 micrograms per cubic meter.
Anything over 55.5 is considered unhealthy.
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends closing schools, workplaces and events for hazardous readings higher than 250 and suggests evacuation if the readings stay above that level for a prolonged period.
Beyond the risk to people’s lives and health, there is a concern that smoke and ash can have a lasting impact on the growing cannabis plants.
Researchers at Oregon State University’s Global Hemp Innovation Center are studying how hemp responds to wildfire smoke and ash exposure.
The group will try to understand if hemp is susceptible to “smoke taint,” similar to what the wine industry has experienced.
Unfortunately, this year looks like it will provide more data to study.
Andrew Long can be reached at [email protected].